by Sky Hedman
2168 words

The moan from behind the wall echoed in the speakeasy as the foursome stood still.

Catherine was the first to spot the opening between the bar and the booths. “I think he’s through here,” she said, as she tentatively approached the doorway. A faint light drew her eyes up a slippery stone stairway, at the top of which, a door stood ajar. She started up the stairs.

“Be careful!” Lindsay said, cautiously following Catherine’s lead.

“Jeff! Jeff!” Carmen shouted, rushing through the narrow door, trying to push aside Lindsay and Catherine. Lindsay fell forward, catching herself on her hands, blocking Carmen’s pass. Carmen stepped on Lindsay’s hand with a crunching sound. Catherine looked back at the sound of Lindsay’s stumble, then Carmen pushed Catherine to the side, causing Catherine to lose her balance. Catherine reached fruitlessly for a handhold on the smooth walls as she fell backward down the stairs. She landed on top of Lindsay, her fall ending only when her head knocked on the lowest stone step. Carmen finally vaulted over the human carnage that separated her from Jeff.

Avery and Billy Bob, the Carolina parakeets, observed it all from their vantage point on the top of the totem. They could see Ted watching the wreckage unfold from behind, his arms reaching out ineffectively into thin air.

The parakeets fluttered and chirped. Humans are so clumsy.

No one heard the loud knocking on the front door of the museum. Sunny waited an appropriate time, and then let herself in.

***

Sunny surveyed the empty entrance hall, closed the door behind her, and stood with the dozen sticky buns and the large regular decaf coffee with cream and sugar in her hands. The building seemed alive, almost like the light got brighter as she entered, yet no one appeared to greet her. She could hear children’s voices from upstairs, accompanied by banging on a door. Even more intriguing were the shouting sounds coming from the basement. They got louder as she walked by the elevator. 

Sunny set down the order, wondering who the coffee was for, and ascended the grand staircase under Josiah Walker’s watchful gaze. She breezed through the exhibition hall noiselessly, attempting to downplay the curiosity that gripped her. She had been here so often after hours, she had read so much about this building and its history, that she was on first name basis with Josiah Walker. She felt close to Lydia, and now Catherine. The noise was coming from her left. The sign pointed to the dinosaur room, but the door seemed to be locked.

“Hello! Hello!” rang a woman’s voice. It was mixed with the sounds of children, some growling and wrestling, some crying.

“Can you hear me?” Sunny called. “If you can, knock three times.”

The knock came immediately, three sharp taps. Sunny knew how to open the door from the outside, knew that the tumbler’s code was “1776,” but debated to herself how she would explain later that she knew it. Attempting to deflect her inside knowledge, she made a vociferous display of prying the heavy door open, while deftly putting the code in the lock.

“Oh, I’m so relieved I was strong enough to open it!” Sunny said. She was now face to face with an anguished middle aged teacher in a pumpkin sweater, her sweaty face dampening her bangs, blotching her foundation and smearing her mascara. Behind her, the children who had been pretending to stalk each other as dinosaurs, turned, and gave a disappointed sigh.

“You didn’t tell us that this was an Escape Room,” the teacher blustered. “Next time, I’ll use the bathroom first.”

The students, still involved in their dinosaur imitations, loosely followed the flustered teacher down the staircase. She gruffly helped them locate their coats and hats, and marched them out into the November gray.

Sunny now had to deal with the scene in the basement. Deciding against revealing her presence, let alone her knowledge of the building, she called the police to report the commotion. She took one more long look, and let herself out.

***

Catherine was propped up against the Great Auk display, one hand holding the ice pack the medics had given her to the back of her head, nibbling on the last of the sticky buns. Her hair hung in wisps around her face, falling loose from the ponytail that she had casually gathered this morning. The brown wool scarf around her neck fell half unraveled over her heather colored sweater, now smudged with the hundred-year dust from the floor of the speakeasy. Her black leggings crept up from her clogs, revealing just a few inches of smooth pink skin.

The long morning of being interviewed by the police and trying to explain who everyone was, including the mysterious skeleton in the basement closet, had been exhausting. She still wondered what happened to the fourth graders in the dinosaur room. And, who called the police? Margaret, the Great Auk, found the whole story very entertaining, perfectly posing within her display case, but hanging on eagerly to every word.

Catherine had been relieved when Jeff was extracted from the basement and carted off in the ambulance, Carmen dramatically releasing his hand only as they loaded him into the red and white vehicle with its flashing lights. Other than dehydration, acute alcohol poisoning, a few bangs from his foray in the museum’s dark underworld and embarrassment at being found tangled up with a corpse, Catherine figured that he would be okay. Carmen left to drive herself to the hospital to attend to Jeff, who most likely was going to have to explain her presence at his side to his wife, Dorothy.

Ted had lingered in the aftermath, seeming to tether himself in front of the wolf display, crouching down and craning his neck to examine it from all angles as he munched on his sticky bun, the only thing he had eaten all day. He remained physically unscathed, although seemingly befuddled with the discovery of the skeleton and the new rooms.

“You should probably have someone look at your head,” he offered when Catherine tried unsuccessfully to get up from the floor. She slumped back down.

“The world is spinning,” she said, grabbing her head and closing her eyes.

“You need to go home,” Ted said, hoping to make a quick exit himself.

“If someone could just help me to my car, I have to get home to my mother.”

“You can’t drive yourself home,” Lindsay jumped in. “You’re in no shape to make that long drive, and besides, you have a head injury. I’ll drive you.”

“You can’t drive with that broken finger.” Lindsay’s left hand was splinted with tongue depressors and adhesive tape from the museum’s aging first aid kit, uncovered in the bottom drawer of the overstuffed file cabinet. It was right under the archival glue used to re-attach the feathers to the Great Auk.

“It’s my left hand. I can drive with my right.” Lindsay’s hand throbbed, but she suddenly didn’t want to let Catherine out of her sight. Truth be told, she wanted to give Catherine a big hug right now. So much was becoming clearer, but so much else needed to be explained.

***

Catherine nodded off immediately as they left the city limits and turned onto the lightly traveled county roads. She snoozed during most of the thirty-minute drive to her house. Lindsay was left with her own thoughts.

The shame totem was at the top of the pile, although vying for first place was the skeleton in the basement closet. Jeff’s reason for being there last night needed an explanation, although the reason for Carmen’s sudden presence became clear. Ted’s appearance at the museum this morning seemed random.

Lindsay suspected that she and Catherine were the only ones who knew about the gold leaf ceiling. Now all of the Board members except Toni knew about the shame totem and the priceless art in the newly discovered speakeasy, as well as the bag of gold coins.

In the dim light of the closet where Jeff was found, with the commotion caused by Catherine’s fall and Jeff’s condition, she had only briefly looked at the skeleton. Still, some clues were evident.

“I’m no archeologist,” Lindsay thought, “but that looks like a female skeleton.” For sure, most of it was decayed or was eaten by rodents. But they were able to pick out metal buttons. Askew under the skeleton’s feet were the soles of the skeleton’s shoes. Even Lindsay’s amateur eyes could see they were delicately sized, the remains of a female. In the crumbled dust, when they found that the left hand had a tarnished gold ring, Lindsay knew in her heart that they had found Lydia.

Lindsay had never met Catherine’s mother, but when Lindsay pulled into their driveway and an anxious face pulled back the sheer curtain and peered out the picture window, she knew immediately who it was. Catherine opened her eyes and stirred when Lindsay turned off the car.

“You’re home,” Lindsay said.

Catherine murmured “Thank you.”

Lindsay took Catherine by the arm to steady her as Catherine walked up the gravelly stone walk. She was glad to be there, glad to be helping Catherine, glad to be touching her, even through her coat. Marilyn held open the front door.

“This must be Lindsay,” Marilyn thought. Something about Lindsay’s fresh face seemed familiar, but how could that be? The way she pulled her long dark hair up on top of her head, those dark eyebrows and fawn colored skin…no, it was her earnest eyes and honest skin that made her a familiar.

Marilyn and Lindsay helped Catherine to the sofa, freshening her ice pack and lowering the blinds to make her eyes more comfortable. Marilyn found a throw from the recliner and spread it over her daughter. Lindsay was reluctant to leave Catherine, the one person in her life who never asked for anything for herself, who ended up falling backward on the stairs, trampled by Carmen, in an effort to help Jeff. Jeff, the two-timing banker who used their Board meetings as a cover for meeting Carmen.

Marilyn was dismayed when Lindsay headed for the door after Catherine was settled.

“Mutton chops,” Marilyn sputtered as Lindsay stood with her hand on the doorknob.

Lindsay turned sharply toward her. Catherine resembled Marilyn, same coloring and softness. Although Marilyn’s feebleness set them apart, Lindsay could see their kindred spirits. It must be hard for Catherine to witness Marilyn’s slide into dementia, she thought.

“Mutton chops is on a train,” Marilyn continued, and smiled weakly.

This is our chance, Lindsay thought. She had wanted to talk to this living member of the Walker family for months. “Do you know Mutton Chops?” she asked tentatively.

“I rode with him on a train,” Marilyn said. “There were wolves, too.” The images were flooding back in. “I miss him. He loves me. Time is ticking, he says.”

Lindsay retraced her steps, and asked Marilyn, “Maybe I should stay and visit with you a while. Would you like a cup of tea?”

Marilyn sat in her husband’s father’s wing back chair. The brown patterned upholstery had worn through in spots, but the quality of the original workmanship could still be detected. Her eyes shone. Lindsay went into the kitchen and found the tea kettle. She could hear Catherine’s mother talking. “Catherine thinks I’m demented and she won’t listen to me.” Lindsay poked her head back in the living room to listen.

Marilyn was pleading. “Catherine works too hard and my husband won’t help her.”

“I think your husband has passed away,” Lindsay said gently.

“Away, away, disparais…” Marilyn had a dreamy look in her eyes. “Josiah took me for a train ride.”

Lindsay listened. Josiah had been dead for eighty years. Marilyn’s husband had been dead for fifteen years. But Marilyn spoke of them in the present. “Can they help Catherine?” she asked.

“We must find the Walker pearls,” Marilyn said.

“Pearls?”

“Yes, that’s what they called the sayings that Josiah passed on down to us. Do you remember them?”

“Tell me about them,” Lindsay said, hoping to leave the conversation open ended.

“Well, they are here, right here,” Marilyn said. “I just remembered that he left them for us under this cushion. My memory is so bad,” she laughed lightly. “Sometimes I can’t remember my daughter’s name!” Marilyn slid her shaky fingers between the cushion and the arm of the chair. She struggled to gain a hold, then pulled out a well worn sheaf of pages, folded neatly in half, filled with flowery handwriting. “I can’t read them anymore, my eyesight is so bad.” She held the pages close to her eyes, squinting and then adjusting the lamp shade to get more light. “No, I can’t read them, but probably you can.” The pages trembled as Marilyn extended her arm towards Lindsay. “Here, this should help.”

To read the story in its entirety, click here.

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